Everyone I know that is comfortable with grilling (myself included) seems to have a Jekyll and Hyde persona. There's the primal side; the one who loves grilling meat, chicken or fish over an open flame with a drink in hand. It goes back to the days of ancient man, channeling the feeling of grilling meat over fire. Then there's the other side, the part that enjoys that feeling but also has a foodie type of urge to grill in a way that creates a complete meal. My friends and I always have share a particular grilling accomplishment, but also discuss the bordering gourmet alter ego. There's the way one typically grills hamburgers, and for my gourmet recipe, I've got a pepper-crusted filet on grilled bread with a roasted garlic mash, topped with a blue cheese butter. For everyone, there's basic grilling, and then there's the desire to make something which soars into the upper echelon of flavor. Steven Raichlen routinely strives for the latter.
Raichlen is the host of Primal Grill, a series that focuses on barbequing and airs on public television. At first glance, Raichlen looks (and slightly sounds) like the late Bob Ross - he could do a show titled The Joy of Grilling and we would be none the wiser. But Raichlen has been immersing himself in discovering different grilling techniques for years; he has written more than two dozen books on the subject, and Primal Grill is not his first show. However, it is my first exposure to Raichlen, and I wasn't all that impressed. Volume One of the series' first season includes the following seven episodes:
"Smoke Screen" - Raichlen smokes salmon, spareribs, pastrami and even dessert.
"Kebabs of the World Unite" - Raichlen does beef kababs, chicken satay and swordfish before doing a dessert kebab dish.
"Make No Mis-Steak" - Raichlen grills a T-bone, filet mignon and ribeye with different regional methods.
"Bird Meets Grill" - Poultry grilled in a variety of ways.
"Fish Without Fear" - Raichlen grills salmon, trout and swordfish.
"Vegetarians at the Grill" - Raichlen does a salad, paella and dessert dish, as no meat hits the grill.
"Shoulders and Butts" - Pork; roasted, smoked, you name it.
First off, there's a certain confidence or arrogance from Raichlen in these episodes that rubs me the wrong way. In between the recipes he has 30 to 45 second interview segments where he talks about the meaning and value of a dish, either to himself or to a culture. Why not cover this during the cooking or preparation? Second, he seems to half-heartedly willing to brand his work, or at least incorporate a catchphrase. This leads me to think he wanted to be a Food Network personality, but they didn't want him. When he works on a gas grill, he talks of making the grill "hot, clean and lubricated," but seems to not stick to the meme from episode to episode. Finally, some of the dishes appear slightly pretentious. Chicken with an espresso rub and a café latte barbeque sauce? Come on. Who's going to want cedar plank salmon with a miso glaze that looks like mashed potatoes?
Despite those misgivings, he provides some useful help for the novices in the house. Among other things, Raichlen illustrates the benefits of direct and indirect heat on a grill, provides tips on best methods for grilling and cooks a variety of courses - from entrees to desserts - and a few of them might even inspire others to try them out. I might dislike the coffee chicken, but I'll be trying the grilled pepper salad and roasted apple dishes when I have the chance.
So while Primal Grill has some elements in it that turn me off as a viewer, there are others as an amateur "master of fire" that deserve my further exploration. After all, now that I've got the red meat part of the grill down pat, my evolved alter ego could use some work.
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Primal Grill shows off the colors in the food and sauces off rather nicely. There is a layer change in the fourth episode of the show, and late in the first episode there's an instance of artifacting that included some noise in the image. There's even some edge enhancement in here sporadically.I was expecting a little more in the quality control department when it came to the picture, but overall these are standard television reproductions that look fine.
The Dolby Digital two-channel stereo track is pretty lively for a public television cooking show. There's an underlying soundtrack included for recipes of a certain region; middle eastern music during beef kebabs, Asian music during the miso glazed salmon, etc. The show's musical introduction whirls by the speakers, and I'd swear the subwoofer occasionally engaged during parts of the seven episodes. I give Raichlen credit for considering production values on this puppy; it's a better than expected presentation.
There are two extra segments on the disc, but both of them are quickies. "All Kinds of Skewers" (2:12) examines the history of the skewer along with the many different types of modern skewers that exist, while "Wood Chunks and Smoking Tips" (2:29) looks at the pros and cons of various wood chips in smoking, along with tips on how to make smoking work in grills. Another section houses what I thought were the recipes, though it was basically a glorified chapter search. If you actually want recipes, go to the Primal Grill website for more information.
Primal Grill is interesting for beginners in the ways of the grill, and Raichlen's history of providing overviews and instruction in grilling isn't bad. But when you get past it and have a grasp of what he's saying, the material feels a little boring, and you want to turn over to Bobby Flay or someone a little more mainstream. It's definitely worth viewing for newbies, but seasoned pros won't gain anything from it.